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NHL

This Is Rock Bottom

BUFFALO, NY - FEBRUARY 15: Sam Reinhart #23 of the Buffalo Sabres before the game against the New York Islanders at KeyBank Center on February 15, 2021 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)
Sam Reinhart has been perhaps the only bright spot in Buffalo. So I expect a helicopter to fall on him next week.
Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images

Other teams have known misery, though nothing quite like this. The Canucks have never won a Cup, but they’ve come close. The Oilers can win lottery after lottery and still not put together a contender, but at least they’ve got a couple of superstars. The Senators … well, you know about the Senators, but at least they seem to be having fun.

No, for the combination of sustained and acute misery, nothing quite lives up to the Sabres, sporting the league’s worst record, getting shredded for half the length of the ice by one skater not doing anything particularly tricky, in a 6-0 loss, on an 11-game losing streak, in what will be year 10 of a playoff drought, which will tie an NHL record. To paraphrase and vulgar up Casey Stengel, can’t anybody here play this fucking game?

What is wrong with the Sabres? To answer that question would require a history lecture, an exorcist, a mathematician with a degree in chaos theory, a sociologist specializing in systems collapse, a grimoire—possibly bound in human skin—on sympathetic magic, and more time than you or I have or would care to spend. Suffice to say, everything is wrong and has been for some time and is not getting better.

“You can’t lose your shit after a few losses,” defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said yesterday morning, and before you pile on his definition of “a few,” read the full quote in context and realize that the point he’s making is that he’s been around for much worse than this. He’s seen things, man. What looks to you like a historically bad team on a notable losing streak is all Ristolainen has ever known. “When it’s your eighth year and it’s been almost identical to the years in the past, at least I have a thick skin. I know how to handle it.”

Buffalo is on an 0-9-2 skid, and has won just two of their last 18, and has only won back-to-back games once this year, all the way back in freaking January. Since being shut down for two weeks with COVID issues in early February, they’ve been outscored 62-28. None of this happens by accident; it requires an underwhelming, demoralized roster bitten by an injury bug, playing for an overmatched coach, with an owner distracted by his other, actually successful team, content to let this little Petri dish mold over unchecked. I fully expected head coach Ralph Krueger to be fired after Monday’s blowout and was a little surprised to find he hasn’t been, but it’s still early in the day.

Krueger, for his part, sounds about done with this. “The score obviously is extreme,” he said after his charges were treated like traffic cones by the Capitals. “I don’t feel quit out of anybody. It’s for others to judge.” In other words: No, that’s what they look like when they’re trying. Not the most inspiring message, when you think about it.

Really, though, nothing’s gone right and nobody can score. Taylor Hall, after shockingly signing a one-year deal in Buffalo to pump up his value: two goals in 27 games. Jack Eichel, the franchise centerpiece who last season looked like he was putting it all together: two goals in 21 games, and a couple of injuries including one that has him out for “the foreseeable future.” The team’s veteran leadership, Kyle Okposo, Jeff Skinner, and Eric Staal: four goals among them. Cody Eakin, signed to a two-year deal last fall: one goal, and a healthy scratch last night. Casey Mittlestadt, 2017 first-round pick: struggling to get off the taxi squad, one goal in 12 games. Rasmus Dahlin, the 2018 first overall pick? Well, just look at what this cursèd franchise has done to him:

Buffalo is where good players go to suck, and where hot prospects go to wither on the vine, and where mediocre players thrive in mediocrity because it’s accepted and maybe even expected. It’s a culture of losing, and it’s ingrained deeper than any one person, except perhaps Terry Pegula. How else to explain the statistical anomaly of going a decade without making the postseason in a league in which more than half the teams qualify each year?

Fans in Buffalo, still consistently one of the country’s best hockey markets, deserve better, but I’m not sure if it comes across as encouragement or as a threat to point out that things can always get worse. Tonight, the Sabres, losers of 11 straight, travel to Newark to face the Devils, losers of 11 straight at home. Something has to give. Historically, that something has always been Buffalo. The Sabres really are the worst of all worlds: an inglorious past, a dreary present, and a dim future. At least they’re consistent.